Alchemical Perpetuum Mobile

Jacob de Graeff (1571-1638) was an Amsterdam mayor and alchemist, who had based his alchemy lab in his house on Herengracht. Together with his friend Pieter Hooft (1575-1636) they built a perpetual motion machine, which was later exhibited by Cornelius Drebbel (1572-1633) at the English court. Drebbel was an alchemist and inventor himself, remembered most notably for the invention of the first navigable submarine in 1620.

First demonstrated in late 1604, the fame of the Perpetuum Mobile spread rapidly. It combined two features, first, a self-winding astronomical almanac showing the date and the phases of the moon, and second, a cylindrical ring in which water moved endlessly to and fro.


For Drebbel and De Graeff alike the principles of alchemy were essential in the development of the perpetuum mobile. They saw the machine in mystical or alchemical terms, and their mindset was greatly influenced by the Rosicrucian tendency of anticipating the new times of great radical changes in both scientific methods and social structure. The instrument’s secret, as Drebbel himself put it, was ‘the fiery spirit of the air’. Perhaps the glass cylinder was filled not with mere air, but with oxygen produced by heating saltpetre, or nitre, which Drebbel was convinced held the secret to chemical transformations of many kinds. All of this points to the fact that while today alchemy is widely considered a pseudo-science at best, back in the 17 century it was still at the cutting edge of scientific revolution and innovation.

Above is the earliest schematic depiction of the wonder and below is an excerpt from a letter of an eyewitness:

A gentleman being Dutch born, and dwelling at Ipswitch, hath made a continual motion of this bigness and size as near as I could guess: the work is this, a ball or round globe, ever standing without moving, and upon the north and south sides a dial, within like unto clock or some dial, both which moving and shewing the courses of the heavens, round about the east and west parts doth a ring or hollow trunke of christall stand, and that without moving, and the same filled to his halfe with fayre water, which without any inforcement, that can be perceived, doth ebb and flow with the Seas in every part of the world. My self stayed so longe that I sawe it ascend up the trunk a good height and left the lower compasse of the ringe empty. The man is very religious, and of an exceeding good repute of the inhabitants, and himself to me affirmed upon his faith, that it should so evermore, without any more help of man for hundreds of years, if it were not broken …


Abraxas has long become a household name for both Amsterdammers and the city’s numerous visitors. Especially those interested in blends and aromas of local greenery. Abraxas is easily among the city’s coziest and atmospheric coffee-shops. But what’s in a name?

abraxas 2

In a great majority of instances the name Abraxas is associated with a singular composite figure, having Chimera-like appearance somewhat resembling a basilisk. He appears on the amulets with the head of a cock or of a lion, the body of a man, and his legs are serpents which terminate in scorpions. In his right hand he grasps a club, or a flail, and in his left is a round or oval shield. Some claim that Abraxas is a form of the Adam Kadmon of the Kabbalists and the Primal Man whom God made in His own image. If so, we definitely went far astray from the original image!


A vast number of engraved stones are in existence, to which the name “Abraxas-stones” has long been given. The subjects are mythological, and chiefly grotesque, with various inscriptions, in which ΑΒΡΑΣΑΞ often occurs, alone or with other words. The meaning of the inscriptions is seldom intelligible: but some of the gems are amulets; and the same may be the case with nearly all.


Finally, it is uncertain whether the mythological Abraxas has any relationship to marijuana, which is being sold under his patronage. But it is quite likely that psychedelic substances and various mind-altering drugs have long been used by mystics and initiates into secret societies and cults. For example, numerous scholars have proposed that the power of the Eleusinian Mysteries (the most famous of the secret rites of the ancient Greece) came from the special drink called kykeon. The initiates, sensitized by the beverage and prepared by preceding ceremonies, may have been propelled by the effects of a powerful psychoactive potion into revelatory mind states with profound spiritual and intellectual ramifications.

The Golden Hand


Of the many gable stones found in Amsterdam, the Golden Hand stands out, at least as far as our “mystical” pursuits go. In addition to the straightforward symbolism of wealth and material well-being, the hand also has profound alchemical connotations.

As was just mentioned, most citizens used the golden hand to symbolize the wealth being accumulated, just like in the picture above, where the Golden Hand marks a former pakhuis (a Dutch warehouse), where the goods were stored.


Others used the hand as a pun on their names. The Hansma’s were a brewery family, who practiced the profession for almost 200 years. The name Hansma, also written as Hantsma, would also explain why they opted for a hand in the production of the gable stone.

It could also be used to signify the ‘golden hands’ of a particular craftsman, or to commemorate your dear ones, as in the example of this next gable stone, where the palm is used for the initials of the family members and the loved ones.


But we also shouldn’t forget about Amsterdam’s Alchemists, for whom the golden hand had a very special meaning too.


Johann Isaac Hollandus was a Flemish alchemist of the 16 and 17 centuries. He produced various manuscripts on alchemy, one of which was on the topic of ‘the golden hand’, also known as the Hand of the Philosophers, the Hand of the Mysteries, or the Hand of the Master Mason.

The first printed edition of Hollandus’ “the Philosopher’s Hand” appeared in 1677 in German. Before that, however, and in fact even much later into the 19 and even 20 centuries alchemists continued to hand copy alchemical works when the printing press was long available. It remains somewhat of a puzzle why they did so, but it sure adds another layer to the deep symbolism of the Golden Hand, for it is golden not only because the alchemist strove to transmute lead into gold, but also because the hand was used to preserve the secret knowledge. Perhaps, some even thought that the diligent copying of the manuscript by hand made the secret knowledge more accessible to the one copying it. However, most likely, it had to do with secrecy and the attempt to conceal the secrets of the craft from competitors.


As put by Hollandus himself: “This is the Hand of the Philosophers with their dear secret signs, with which the old sages united with each other and took secret oaths. Nobody can understand this hand with its secret signs, unless he becomes first a juror of the philosophers, (one who swore loyalty to a philosopher), and has loyally served them in the Art Alchemia.”

And as such the hand holds the keys to divinity, and is used as a secret sign of an alchemist’s oath, but also as an invitation to discover the ‘great secrets.’



Easy! Just go on a walk through the streets of Amsterdam, albeit slightly off the beaten path, and you will see this amazing work of the famous Russian artist Ilja Kabakov.


Located on the roof of a psychiatric clinic, the sculpture immediately sparked off debates. Doesn’t it provoke suicide in the already unstable patients? Not really, thinks the artist. It symbolizes the patient leaving the clinic, ready to embrace his Guardian Angel.

The sight is interesting for another reason: in the XVII century it was just beyond the newly built city walls, which appeared there as a result of a massive city expansion. And it was precisely on this spot, where the ‘mad house’ was built.

Not so long ago, Kabakov presented another piece of art, which again had to do with angels:

kabakov 3

As you can see, this is a crime scene, and the angel is the victim. Who knows, maybe it is the same angel, for whom the patient on the roof of the clinic is waiting? Well, if so, the patient needs to be told that the angel is not coming …

Meeting an angel seems to be an important topic for Kabakov. He comes back to it again and again:


In this fuller installation of “How to meet an angel” Kabakov shows that not only the ladder, but the angel too, are within the man himself, and it is all in his power to make the ascent and meet the caged angel, who, according to Kabakov, has always been inside.
кабаков 5.jpg


The Third Eye

Around 1635 in Amsterdam Rene Descartes wrote about the pineal gland. Located in the brain in the middle of the forehead just above the eyes, Descartes believed this ‘third eye’ to be the ‘principal seat of the soul’.


‘H’ marks the pineal gland. Diagram found in Descartes’ “Treaty of Man”.

Roughly 300 years later, in 1965, Amsterdam medical student and a Provo Bart Huges drilled a small hole in the middle of his forehead. Thus releasing brain pressure, Huges believed this trepanation would ‘enhance brain functionality’ and ‘expand consciousness’ resulting in a ‘permanent high’.

Bart Huges just after his self-trepanation.

Join us to find more about Amsterdam’s mystics, occultists, and esotericists on our Amsterdam Mystic Walk! 

The Philosopher’s Stone on Koningsplein

Not so long ago, sometime in the fall of 2015, an interesting performance took place on Koningsplein, one of the central squares of Amsterdam. A man dressed in what seemed to be a Beetlejuice outfit, with the help of several accomplices, proceeded to draw a geometric symbol right on the pavement, which soon revealed itself to be the geometrical representation of the Philosopher’s Stone. The Alchemist’s attempt to create the elusive substance capable of transmuting base metals into more noble ones, most notably gold, was equalled to a geometer’s riddle of ‘squaring the circle’, a challenge of constructing a square with the same area as a given circle by using only a finite number of steps with compass and straightedge. In 1882 the task was proven impossible. So was the alchemist’s attempt to transmute metals. Or was it? Some alchemists have claimed they achieved success, others continue the pursuit even today. Perhaps, by drawing the symbol of the Philosopher’s Stone this modern alchemist let us know that he too found the secret …



Magic mushrooms and marijuana are far from being tSalamander_from_The_Story_of_Alchemy_and_the_Beginnings_of_Chemistry (1)he strangest products Amsterdam shops have ever offered. Back in the XVII century instead of mushroom-shaped signs (signifying the location of a smart-shop), or a leaf of weed (which almost all coffee-shops have somewhere in their design), the shops of alchemists were identified by the sign of a salamander, dancing in the fire. Sailors and missionaries rushed to these shops in order to procure alchemically made potions.


Iatrochemistry was the name of a subdivision of alchemy, whImage_Parool_blog1ose main preoccupation was medicine. The iatrochemist distilled metals with the purpose of creating a miracle drug, which would cure people of all diseases. Antimony was considered a miracle metal and was extremely popular among the Alchemists of Amsterdam. With the right recipe (and a magical cup, of course) one could make a miracle drink. And even though poisonings were much more frequent than miraculous healings, the metal remained a popular cure throughout the XVII century.


Of all Amsterdam’s Alchemists of the XVII century (and there were quite a few), only one managed to producHelios-copy-for-websitee gold. Or so he claimed. His name was Johann Friedrich Schweitzer (1625 – 1709). Needless to say, this happened not without the intrusion of the Supernatural, in the face, as it was common those days, of a “Mysterious Stranger“. He was known, to the few Chosen Ones, of course, as Elias the Artist (from Helios – the sun), a legendary alchemist of supreme skill, a semi-god, the Messiah, whose coming would transform the land. On a December night of 1666, Elias the Artist himself paid a visit to Schweitzer’s lab. There, he handed the alchemist the missing ingredient, a tiny bit of the Philosopher’s Stone.


The coming of Elias the Master was also awaited by another prominent alchemist of the XVII century, German-Dutch Johann Rudolf Glauber (1604 – 1670). The scientists remember him even today for his discovery of sodium sulfate, which is called after him “Glauber’s salt“. Elias, however, never showed up. After a severe fall from a carriage in 1666, and in a state of health seriously undermined by all sorts of poisonings known to man Glauber died. He is buried in Westerkerk.

The Vrolik Museum, A Well-Hidden Gem of Amsterdam

Not only is the Vrolik Museum well beyond the usual touristy scope of Amsterdam, it also seems to be hiding itself quite well on the premises of the Academic Medical Center.

One way to find it is to use the central entrance of the Medical Center, and then follow the signs:

Follow the Vrolik

Follow the Vrolik

Another option, is to veer to the left once off the Holendrecht metro station, and then use the entrance, which will take you straight to the museum. You will see this sculpture to the left of the entrance:

All is vanity

All is vanity

The Museum originated as a private collection of anatomical curiosities of Gerardus Vrolik (1775-1859), a professor of botany and anatomy in the predecessor of the current University of Amsterdam, then known as Athenaeum Illustre. Then his son, Willem Vrolik (1801-1863), the surgeon and anatomist, took over and enriched the collection greatly.

Quite ironically, “vrolijk” also means “happy” in Dutch. These skeletons, featured in the museum, seem to be laughing at such coincidence.

A Laughing Matter

A Laughing Matter

All parts of human body can be found in the museum, neatly dissected and just as neatly put on display. All kinds of deformities are exhibited here as well.

The Hand Of Doom

The 6-Fingered Hand Of Doom

The Museum is free, but this skeleton at the entrance is asking for any spare change you might have. Don’t make the skeleton sad, throw him a coin:

Have you got any spare change?

Have you got change?